Cleft palate is a condition in which the two plates of the skull that form the hard palate (roof of the mouth) are not completely joined. The soft palate is in these cases cleft as well. In most cases, cleft lip is also present. Cleft palate occurs in about one in 700 live births worldwide.
Palate cleft can occur as complete (soft and hard palate, possibly including a gap in the jaw) or incomplete (a 'hole' in the roof of the mouth, usually as a cleft soft palate). When cleft palate occurs, the uvula is usually split. It occurs due to the failure of fusion of the lateral palatine processes, the nasal septum, and/or the median palatine processes (formation of the secondary palate).
The hole in the roof of the mouth caused by a cleft connects the mouth directly to the nasal cavity.
A result of an open connection between the oral cavity and nasal cavity is called velopharyngeal inadequacy (VPI). Because of the gap, air leaks into the nasal cavity resulting in a hypernasal voice resonance and nasal emissions while talking. Secondary effects of VPI include speech articulation errors (e.g., distortions, substitutions, and omissions) and compensatory misarticulations and mispronunciations (e.g., glottal stops and posterior nasal fricatives). Possible treatment options include speech therapy, prosthetics, augmentation of the posterior pharyngeal wall, lengthening of the palate, and surgical procedures. Submucous cleft palate (SMCP) can also occur, which is a cleft of the soft palate with a classic clinical triad of a bifid, or split, uvula which is found dangling in the back of the throat, a furrow along the midline of the soft palate, and a notch in the back margin of the hard palate.
Researchers supported by the National Institutes of Health report in the current issue of the journal Science that a much-studied gene called SUMO1, when under expressed, can cause cleft lip and palate, one of the world's most common birth defects.
With several genes already implicated in causing cleft lip and palate, the authors note their addition to the list comes with a unique biological twist. The SUMO1 gene encodes a small protein that is attached to the protein products of at least three previously discovered "clefting" genes during facial development, in essence linking them into or near a shared regulatory pathway and now hotspot for clefting.
According to Maas, their discovery also offers a prime example of the power of genomic research, the comparative study of individual or sets of related genes among species, from yeast to human. The discovery also highlights the utility of comprehensive gene databases, DNA libraries, and other publicly accessible genomic resources to accelerate the pace of modern science.